Review – Bridal Mask
Bridal Mask is one of the most epic, emotional, action-packed, gut-wrenching shows I have ever watched. It takes place during the 1930’s, when Japan had colonized the country. The hatred between the local “Joseon” people and the Japanese is palatable. Though some have been striving to live and work in peace, overall it is a volatile time rife with government, military, and police corruption. The plot centers around a young Korean man who has betrayed his people by joining the Japanese military to help them end the rebellion, in particular catch the infamous masked crusader known only as “Bridal Mask.” He is despised by his own people and distrusted by the Japanese, with the exception of his best friend, a kind-hearted elementary school teacher. A series of tragic events lead both of these men into their terrible fates.
Overall Rating – 9/10. When Elementary School Teachers Embrace The Dark Side… (also known as: The Problem With Eye For An Eye Is There Are Always More Eyes)
It would be a 10/10 but I confess it could have probably cut about ten entire episodes and not suffered from plot loss. More discussion (and spoilers! sorry, I can’t help it) follow.
This series may throw you off in the beginning with its cheesy electric guitar riffs and slightly corny chase scenes. You may be slightly uncomfortable with the awkward portrayal of the mentally challenged older brother. You may think to yourself… this seems so obvious, the Japs are bad, the Koreans are good, blah blah. And what’s up with his hair? That mask looks dumb! Is he wearing pajamas? You may say… this is going to be dumb. Why do people think this drama is epic?
STICK WITH IT.
It’s bizarre how these shows transform. This is one of those shows that starts off rocky and slightly corny. You may not be sold by the first episode. But by the end of episode four you will be invested. As in… you’ll be more than willing to shovel all your time into this 28 episode drama. Because by then it’s matured and figured itself out. And it’s interesting and the history is unique and the characters are mesmerizing. Besides… if you’ve watched any K-dramas you know that cheesy stuff is brainwashing… all the things that annoy you in the first few episodes you’ll be loving by the end. Cue the patriotic music, cause you’ll be tearing up every time you hear it, trust me.
This show is DARK. The subject matter is dark. The time period is dark. The people involved are dark. The situations are dark. Even the friendships, loves and families fall into the darkest of pits of despair. It’s sad, it’s horrible, and it’s often difficult to watch (ep 14, when our School Teacher almost beats one of his subordinates to death in a fit of rage at a fancy party? I mean… if you weren’t cringing, there’s something wrong with you… or… oh my god… remember a few eps before when he goes nuts at the hospital and continually stabbed that guy with a giant syringe needle? Holy shit, that was intense… I mean… my jaw fell off while watching that scene… I was floored. Our School Teacher’s descent into madness is worth the price of admission alone).
There’s not a lot of up side to being under colonial reign. What’s worse is you can sense certain things happening in this show and it starts to pick at you… like an uncomfortable itch you can’t reach… you know that when Subject A and Subject B figure out Subject C that things are going to be horrible… and it’s only a matter of time before they do… and you’re left sitting there nervously waiting for the inevitable. How long will it take? How bad will it be? The suspense! These little foregone conclusions are all through this drama. Like dominoes being lined up in an elaborate design, you know they’re going to be knocked down at the end. And it’s going to be painful and glorious and great television.
It’s the 1930s, so we also have that strange transition between sword fighting and guns. You still have samurai’s running around… soldiers with German pistols… fighting dudes with metal flutes… and those who are free form Kendo-style kicking tail. It’s a wild mix. You never know what you’re going to get or how people are going to die. You also had the transition between animals, carts, and automobiles. Streetcars, rickshaws, motorcycles, and horses all competed for the road.
The juxtaposition between all the traditional Korean and the Japanese culture are also quite unique. And very pointed. The way the Koreans eyes would linger on the Japanese flags posted in the rooms… the contempt… it was brilliantly done. You have Korean gisaeng houses now filled with Japanese geisha. Except… most of them aren’t… they’re just Koreans wearing what is now popular amongst the wealthy. I wonder how much of the subtleties of this show were lost on me because I can’t tell the differences between accents. Did our school teacher have a Japanese accent, for example? Was it more obvious who was who and what role was what to the intended audience?
The characters are extremely complicated. In particular, the two male leads.
The Elementary School Teacher. Our elementary school teacher is the youngest son of a Japanese police commander of sorts (I don’t remember the exact title). His older brother had followed in his father’s footsteps and joined up in the ranks, while he’d chosen to go a more peaceful route, teaching small children. Small Korean children, no less. Though he’s a kick ass Kendo expert, this dude is a genuinely sweet man. He cares of his elderly nanny, defying his father to save her life when she is ill. He pines over his first love, a young girl he met in a hospital. He enjoys his friendship with a ruffian Korean guy (our other male lead). He seems to like Korea and the Korean people. Yet… he’s not assimilated, he’s with them but not of them. Small things like our Japanese school teacher creating a small museum in his school of “Korean” items, complete with labeling, that his students and friends were bringing to him… masks and chamber pots. It showed both his love for the Korean people and yet how separate he still was from them, turning their belongings into little displays to be analyzed and pondered over.
It was never easy being Japanese in Korea under colonial rule, even when you were a sweet guy like our school teacher. When his childhood sweetheart could not return his affections because of their differences, it needled him. When he saw his best friend being tormented by his fellow Koreans, you could tell he was heartbroken. When his own brother was killed by the Korean vigilante Bridal Mask, right before his eyes, you saw something inside him snap. It was a turning point… the straw that broke the camels back, so to speak.
They say there are certain temperaments that just aren’t cut out for combat. Gentle souls. People like Mr. Rogers or Bob Ross or that guy from Blues Clues. Can you imagine them interrogating someone in a subbasement? No. The thought it is horrifying, honestly. For these tender people, who are meant to cherish children and find harmony in the world… to cross over into the world of conflict would be to lose their souls. To lose the very center of their being. To basically sacrifice their sanity. You put a gun in Mr. Rogers hand and make him shoot it and I guarantee you… he would have gone CRAZY. Which is exactly what happens to our Japanese friend here. Our sweet elementary school teacher could hold onto his innocence no more. He had to embrace the reality that he was the occupier in an occupied land and completely sacrifice himself and his sanity in a misguided attempt to save the woman he loved and seek justice for the death of his brother.
And so he gave up being a school teacher and became his father’s son, a soulless monster – jumping to the top of the line in the police. Nepotism at its finest.
And everyone underestimated him as a policeman. What they didn’t count on, I think, was that he didn’t think like they did. He could come up with plans and see things in a way that surprised them. Within days, he’d managed to set traps that Bridal Mask walked right into. People underestimated him. They didn’t think a tender-hearted school teacher could turn dark. Have they not seen Star Wars? Do they not know the allure of the Dark Side? Once you step over… you just slide right on down that slope into evil. Sure, he told himself it was all for vengeance… but there was more to it. There was the sudden approval of his father. The sudden horde of men under his command. The thrill of the hunt. The sheer horrible excitement of violence. There’s an alluring power there… something you don’t get from teaching kids mathematics. Power over other people, clearly, offers a whole new type of rush. It’s something men and women have been chasing since the dawn of time. We are, sadly, kinda pathetic that way.
When he was fighting Bridal Mask… one on one… those were the moments where our school teacher looked most alive. Crazed, half out of his skull, but alive! Ah, war. No wonder we never seem to settle down. Our poor, tormented school teacher. He was scary, was he not? I think if you’ve seen this show, you will agree he is the most memorable thing about it.
But enough about this sad, sad fellow… let’s talk about our other sad, sad fellow.
Bridal Mask 2.0/Jap Mutt.
Our second male lead is the Jap Mutt, the Korean who turned his back on his people to join the Japanese police… only to turn again and rise as their secret defender, Bridal Mask. Jesus, what a storyline. Half the story was told with his eyebrows… seriously, the man had amazing eyebrow power!
As if the School Teacher didn’t have a complicated story, this dude just went through the ringer. Attempting to escape to China a young age, he is captured and forced to return to Korea with his mother and brother. There he struggles to put his older brother through college, in hopes that their family might have a better life. Unfortunately, their brother is horribly injured in jail – and comes out crazy. Or mentally disabled? Apparently if you are mentally handicapped no one will give you a decent haircut. Or a shirt without holes.
I’m not sure how prison makes a person mentally disabled, but I decided not to get too hung up on the details. Anyways, now all our Jap Mutt’s work has been for nothing – and he has two people to support. In desperation, our young mutt begs some Japanese Kendo experts to teach him martial arts in hopes he can join the police. What else can he do to make a decent living with no education? Basically nothing. Nothing at all. So he buries his pride, blackens his heart, and turns his back on his people in order to support his family. Joining the Japanese Imperial Police… the only Korean in the lot.
And he’s a damn good cop. He’s a mean son of a bitch, but he gets his work done.
The boy takes to being a Jap Mutt like a fish to water. In fact, he’s the best detective in town, tracking down rebels left and right and rising through the ranks quickly. His ultimate goal, of course, to catch the elusive Bridal Mask. Which he does… blowing a hole through his stomach. The End of Bridal Mask Version 1.0. Cause for celebration, right? Uh… no.
Unfortunately, Bridal Mask turns out to be his brother. Who did not lose his wits in jail but has been punking everyone and secretly going about on his revenge mission. Punch to the gut for our young Jap Mutt! His brother dies tragically… on the same day his mother died tragically… on the same day the town thought it would be hysterical to kill the whole family for having a turncoat son and torched the house. It was just a bad day all around.
What’s a Jap Mutt to do but take up his brother’s mask and avenge his entire family? Avenging them, in fact… against himself. Because he has become the enemy of his people. So the self loathing will never end. The inner torment will just continue to boil this poor dude alive. And thus Bridal Mask 2.0 is born. Told you he was complicated.
The mirroring in the show is also remarkably well done. Because both male leads actually experience similar painful, horrible fates. Never is it more clear than when the infamous bedroom confession scene is mirrored.
Bedroom Confession Scene One is between our Jap Mutt and his old brother, who we have recently discovered, as an audience, is the Bridal Mask, but unfortunately his little bro has yet to realize this. Little bro Jap Mutt still thinks his big bro is mentally deficient and curls up in bed with him after a particularly challenging day at work and just breaks down… just… total breakdown. He confesses he hates his life. He confesses he doesn’t know what else to do. He is all but begging his brother to ask him to stop. But his brother remains silent… pretends to be asleep, pretends to be ignorant, pretends to be mentally incompetent… all the while we know he is in fact his antagonist, the root of his troubles. That these two are enemies – yet do they have to be? Could they not reach out and heal the distance? We will never know… because all there is between them is silence, tears and a one sided confession.
Bedroom Confession Scene Two is between our Jap Mutt, who has now taken up the mantel of Bridal Mask, and his bestie the School Teacher, who has now become a crazy Policeman. The School Teacher confesses to his friend that he thinks he’s loosing his mind, that’s he slowly turning into a monster, that everything he thought he was fighting for is turning against him, slipping through his fingers. But what can he do? He’s in the hands of fate now… can he dare dream of going back to the children? Of escaping this path of death and chaos? And all the while beside him, silent, unable or unwilling to make his own confession… is the one person who could change everything. The enemy. Oh, the bittersweet irony of this scene! The mirroring is priceless…
In both scenes the one listening, the one with a secret, is full of regret and remorse… but the one confessing… that’s the one on the verge of hell.
Now, as a woman, my instinct is to talk it out. So both of these scenes were particularly painful for me to watch. I was all but screaming inside “Oh My God, tell him!!!” But of course I knew this wouldn’t happen… the masks were only coming off in this show with bloodshed and remorse and death. It’s these kinds of scenes that are the hallmark of good writing. Little repetitions, major themes revealed in seemingly small moments, reversals of fortune you didn’t expect… you see this kind of thing in Game of Thrones all the time.
Geesh… these boys have a rough ride ahead of them.
What do two sad men need between them, other than their nationalities, their sworn allegiances, and their fragile friendship? Well, a woman, of course!
Circus Girl. Circus girl is the childhood sweetheart of BOTH MEN. That’s right… miraculously (ridiculously) she met both these dudes when she was a young lass and made a lasting impression. She met our Jap Mutt while trying to flee to China. And maybe a year or two later she met our School Teacher while working as a volunteer nurse at a Catholic Hospital. She had a different name both times. Boon Yi with Jap Mutt. Esther with School Teacher. Now… she’s something else, but who cares… she works for a circus, has a freedom fighter dad, and both of our male main leads are crazy in love with her. Crazy being the operative word.
When Jap Mutt figures out who she is… he’s quite torn, because at the time he’s till thoroughly on the Japanese side and wants to use her as bait to catch Bridal Mask. Will he sacrifice his first love to catch the most wanted criminal? Circus Girl does not recognize our Jap Mutt at all, so she is not conflicted one way or another.
When School Teacher figures out who she is… he’s delighted! My childhood sweetie! Only she’s not as excited about the reunion. She’s rather lukewarm, because she’s still stuck on her first love… which is, unfortunately, not our School Teacher. As our School Teacher turns into Dark Side School Teacher… he finds himself in the same boat as Jap Mutt. Will he sacrifice his first love to catch the most wanted criminal, Bridal Mask? Oh, the mirroring! The mirroring, the mirroring… it’s divine.
Circus Girl was quite plucky and likable. She carried her own weight the entire show, from the first episode – defiantly throwing a rock during a funeral procession – to the last. The girl was tortured… repeatedly… on the run… repeatedly… questioned and followed and tormented and confused. All the while pining away for Bridal Mask 1.0 which she thought was her first love (nope!) and then for Bridal Mask 2.0 which actually was her first love (bingo!). Of course, there’s no doubt who she will end up with… though this is the kind of show that would kill off the main characters, so I was never quite sure if everyone was going to make it all the way to a happy ending.
Needless to say a lot of people died in this show.
Let’s talk about some Side Characters:
I personally loved the school teacher’s older brother. His face was so expressive and watching him slowly break into a million shattered nerves under the pressure of his severe father was extremely fun to watch. He would have just started randomly shooting in the street, I think, if he hadn’t found Bridal Mask there towards his end. Though his death was epic, I was still sorry to see him go… what a great character. He was just so deliciously evil! And so flamboyant and flippant about it. Kill people? Meh! He’d become numb to the horrors of death. He was a natural leader yet always trapped under his father, eager to please the man. This is what tough love leads to… unstable psychopaths.
And of course the Joseon Geisha.
You know, people will do a lot to survive in this world. You have to go through a lot of mental gymnastics, sometimes, not to go insane with your situation in life. Like this girl. Her world was shattered when her parents were murdered, leaving her under the thumb of a cold ruthless Japanese cult leader who decided to mold her into a cold ruthless psuedo-daughter. She had so many fake identities, it’s a miracle she knew what lipstick to wear in the morning. Who am I today? Oh yeah… Ra Ra, the lounge singer… no, no… the evil daughter of the Japanese secret military movement… no, no… the broken, fragile Korean orphan… no. Poor thing. What a beautiful viper, though, am I right? Everyone was so cruel to her, but she didn’t give them a lot of opportunities to be nice either so you can’t blame them.
Her loyal samurai bodyguard… holy smoldering moly. They should have just run off together to China. He clearly would have slaughtered everyone in Japan AND Korea to get to second base with her. But then again, what did he expect? He never attempted to get out of the friend zone. “Can’t you see my feelings?” Uh… well… sorta, kinda, smolder, kinda. But can’t you smolder a little closer, honey? Sorry guys, but sometimes you gotta make a move… women can’t read your minds.
One of my favorite scenes is in Ep 20… when Sunji finally learns his older brother killed his best friend’s mom… damn. Goiso, the nutty bastard, is laughing about, finally revealing the secret to Sunji. And our School Teacher was feeling all smug about his bestie being fired from the police squad until he heard that… then we got to see a little shred of his soul come back.
For about two seconds. But then he does some mental math… MyBrotherKillsBestie’sMom+BestieSuperPissedOff=BestieIsBridalMask. And we finally get the light bulb moment for poor Sunji. After suspecting him for several long episodes… he gets his confirmation. And it kinda sucks cause it’s justified. Not that Sunji is going to see it that way, of course… but still…
I am humming Erasure… “Love and Hate… what a beautiful combination. Sending shivers up and down my spine. How I love to hate you. I love to hate you…I love to hate youuuuuuuu.”
This is mirrored later, in Ep 25, when School Teacher finally catches Bridal Mask 2.0 and gets the whole story. Your brother killed my mother. My brother went out for revenge, but alas… I shot my brother, not knowing it was my brother. Then I found out it was my brother I shot but it was your brother shot my mother, so I had to go and kill your brother… and it’s basically been a mess ever since. So, uh, thanks for catching me. Life has been really hard and I really didn’t want to kill you. And Sunji’s face!
That’s the face of a man who realizes he’s been totally fucked by fate.
Anyways, it’s a long show (too freakin’ long! Seriously, they should have cut ten episodes and it would have been the perfect show)… but I loved it. I loved all of it. Even the bitter end (well, okay not the actual end cause that was hella ambiguous… they could have given us a little scroll at the end with some history of what happens next but I guess everyone in Korea already knows… so for me, it was straight to the internet to do some research).